Craft Talk 1: Quincy Troupe’s Rhythm

I’ve been reading The Architecture of Language, by Quincy Troupe, and I have been fascinated by how rhythm and syntax interact in the way he builds his lines. Structurally, the poems remind me of nothing so much as jazz improvisation, and I have thought often while reading this book of something Hayden Carruth wrote in an essay from 1981 called “Notes on Meter,” which you can find in Selected Essays & Reviews:

I always revert to Pound, and to his early suggestion that poets ‘compose in the sequence of the musical phrase.’ How simple. How brilliant. Which perhaps explains why no one has successfully elaborated it, as far as I know. It’s a pity because it means that Pound’s statement (more exactly his restatement of ancient principle) has turned into a catch-phrase—people speak it and repeat it without bothering to ask what it means. To most it conveys merely a license to compose any way they want—feelingly, liltingly, that’s the commonest meaning. But Pound was a fair musician…he knew what he was talking about when he spoke of the ‘sequence of the musical phrase.’ A measure in music, a bar, is a fixed quantity. If the time signature is 4/4, you have four beats to the measure…But within the fixed measure you may have any melodic or phrasal combination you wish, any distribution of accents, any number and variety of notes; you my emphasize the beat or you may syncopate it; you may play around; you may even substitute rests…Hence there is no question of tying the beat to an inflexible pattern of accentual or phrasal units, such as an endless succession of eighth notes.

This is a theme that Carruth returned to again and again in his writing on poetic form, the idea that for a poem to succeed as a poem, as a work of art, it needs to have been built around some identifiable sense of measure, some regular pattern—of beats, syllables, sounds, it doesn’t matter as long it’s something a reader/listener can hear—against which the poet can play with the phrasing of her or his language to create not just the interaction between sound and meaning, but also the play of pure sound that is where so much of the sensual pleasure of poetry lies.

To see what I can learn about how Troupe creates this pleasure for me—and his poems do that; I often find myself reading them aloud—I have opened up The Architecture of Language at random to “A Convention of Little Dogs.” Here are the first six lines:

in manhattan’s central park, on a cold bright day
in november, a convention of little dogs swirl,
dart around sparse grass in clearing, pick their way
through tangled heaps of fallen bone-branches
felled by fierce onslaughts of howling alaskan winds
that sliced through clothing like razors the night before

First, let’s look at the syntactic structure of these lines, which make up a single, compound-complex sentence:

  1. Line 1 is made up of two prepositional phrases, situating the reader in place and time
  2. Line 2 begins with a third prepositional phrase, further specifying the time in which the poems occurs, and ends with the subject and first verb of the sentence
  3. Line 3 contains a second verb phrase in its entirely, ands with the beginning of the third verb phrase, which takes up the next three lines and completes the sentence
  4. Lines 4-6 are constructed such that they each one modifies the last word in the previous line: through in line 4 modifies way at the end of line 3; felled in line 5 modifies branches at the end of line 4; that in line 6 introduces a relative clause that modifies winds at the end of line 5

Fundamentally what this very deliberately crafted sentence does is set the scene for the exploration that follows of the politics and power struggles at work within the convention of little dogs (who of course stand in for the “convention of little humans” that occupies the world), but what I’m really interested in here is how Troupe gets these lines to hang together rhythmically, so that they become more than a prose sentence chopped up into six more or less self-contained syntactic units. As I read them, the lines would scan as I indicate below. I have put the stressed syllables in red bold face, and I have put in italics those syllables that might or might not be read as stressed:

in manhattan’s central park, on a cold bright day
in november, a convention of little dogs swirl,
dart around sparse grass in a clearing, pick their way
through tangled heaps of fallen bone-branches
felled by fierce onslaughts of howling alaskan winds
that sliced through clothing like razors the night before

I’m not claiming that my scansion is somehow authoritative and that there are no other possibilities. I can, for example, imagine someone stressing the in at the beginning of line 1 and not stressing the their in “pick their way” at the end of line 3; but what I have shown above illustrates what I hear when I read the lines. The first thing I notice is that the number of stresses per line fall into a regular pattern: 667667. I don’t know if that pattern holds over the course of the entire poem, but I’d be willing to bet that a more in-depth analysis would reveal that it sets the metrical framework around which every other line is built.

A closer examination of the six lines I’ve quoted reveals a rhythmic patterning that I think illustrates quite nicely what it means to “compose in the sequence of the musical phrase.” First some description:

  1. At the end of line three, a cold bright day, one unstressed syllable followed by three stressed syllables—or, to be technical about it, an iamb followed by a spondee, or, to get even more technical (at least according to Wikipedia) a “first epitrite.”
  2. This pattern is then picked up in the last three syllables of line 2 plus the first syllable of line three: …tle dogs swirl/dart. (This is a good example of what I think composing in “the sequence of the musical phrase” means. If you imagine the end of the line is the end of the measure, then this rhythmic phrase actually occupies two different measures.)
  3. You find the same pattern again in line six, that sliced through cloth.
  4. In lines 3-6 you find a related pattern, unstressed-stressed-stressed-unstressed (an iamb followed by a trochee, also known as an antispast), at a different point in the line each time—which also speaks to the question of phrasing. I have italicized the unstressed syllables in the pattern:

dart around sparse grass in clearing, pick their way
through tangled heaps of fallen bone-branches
felled by fierce onslaughts of howling alaskan winds
that sliced through clothing like razors the night before

This is what the rhythmic patterning of the entire six lines looks like in the abstract, using dashes for unstressed and slashes for stressed syllables. I’ve left the punctuation marks in, and I’ve marked the two patterns in different colors:

– – / – / – /, – – / / /
– – / -, / – / – – / – / /,
/ 
– / / – – / -, / – /
/ / 
– / – / – / / –
– / / – – / – – / – /
– / / / – / / – – / – /

These aren’t the only patterns that one can find in these lines, of course, but they do seem to me the dominant ones, and I do not think you can explain their occurrence as mere accident. At the same, however, I do not think that Quincy Troupe said to himself as he was writing, “Aha! That’s a really nice place to put an antispast, and I think that’s the metrical foot I am going to use to create rhythmic interest in this part of my poem.” Rather, I am guessing that Troupe has worked long and hard to train his ear and his body to feel such things “naturally,” the way a pianists will practice scales over and over and over and over again until doing them feels almost as natural as breathing. I won’t presume to imagine the precise form that training took, but I’d wager it involved at some point listening very carefully to how jazz drummers build their solos.

I don’t really have much more to say about this right now. To go more deeply into a prosodic analysis of the poem would take time I don’t have, as would trying to say anything substantive about the interaction between form and meaning in The Architecture of Language—an essay which deserves to be written. For now, I am glad to have sat for these 1500 words or so at the feet of someone from whose craft I feel like I have something to learn.

Cross-posted.

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6 Responses to Craft Talk 1: Quincy Troupe’s Rhythm

  1. 1
    RonF says:

    Even when reading prose there’s a rhythm to speaking. I’ve been sitting in church for the last 15 years listening to people read the lessons. Some times I say to myself “Do you really think St. Peter said that like THAT? Do you think that’s what it sounded like in St. Paul’s head as he wrote that letter? Do you think that’s the way that people heard Moses speak to his people?” Listen to a black Baptist preacher talk to people – or, if you’re not into church, listen to a Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speech, because that’s where he learned to inspire a crowd. The rhythm, the the changes in tempo and emphasis all modify and emphasize the meanings of the words. Few people use that when they read, or even when they speak from their own heart. But it’s as essential a method to persuade or move people in prose as it is in poetry.

  2. That’s so true, Ron. It’s one of the reasons I read aloud almost every piece of prose I write, even the driest committee report.

    I tell my creative writing students to think of the sentence as the “building block” of prose, so to speak, and of the line as the building block of poetry. How you manage the rhythm, and create rhythmic structure in each form, is very different, but without a felt and compelling rhythm neither form will communicate as effectively as it would with such a rhythm. Ironically, it’s often easier to get students to see this in poetry, where you can break the line down into syllables, which are the building blocs of the line. It’s harder to get students to see it in prose, however, because it’s hard to talk about building the rhythm of a sentence without being able to talk about simple, compound, complex and complex-compound sentences, and that means being able to talk about phrases and clauses and the parts of speech. And most students these days just don’t have that vocabulary.

  3. 3
    Grace Annam says:

    Richard:

    It’s harder to get students to see it in prose, however, because it’s hard to talk about building the rhythm of a sentence without being able to talk about simple, compound, complex and complex-compound sentences, and that means being able to talk about phrases and clauses and the parts of speech. And most students these days just don’t have that vocabulary.

    To discuss it technically, yes, you need that vocabulary. I think if I were trying to get them to see it, or hear it, I would use examples, and probably examples from theater, or showing clips from movies they know and then demonstrating how the meaning changes as I changed things like emphasis, speed, intonation, rhythm, and so on. I’m certain you have used those techniques. Do you not find that they work?

    Grace

  4. Grace,

    The distinction you make between getting students to see, or hear, rhythm in prose and being able to discuss it with them technically, by which I mean in terms of how one builds rhythm in a prose sentence, is a good one. The kinds of examples you refer to—from movies or theater—are probably the easiest way to introduce the notion of rhythm, though it’s also important to note that the rhythm of dialogue is different in all sorts of ways from the rhythm of prose, whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, journalism, scholarship, or whatever. By way of example, in my creative writing class this semester, we were analyzing this paragraph from Tobias Wolff’s story “Bullet in the Brain,” which was originally published in The New Yorker on September 25, 1995:

    The man with the shotgun pushed the guard to his knees. He handed up the shotgun to his partner and yanked the guard’s wrists up behind his back and locked them together with a pair of handcuffs. He toppled him onto the floor with a kick between the shoulder blades. Then he took his shotgun back and went over to the security gate at the end of the counter. He was short and heavy and moved with peculiar slowness, even torpor. “Buzz him in,” his partner said. The man with the shotgun opened the gate and sauntered along the line of tellers, handing each of them a Hefty bag. When he came to the empty position he looked over at the man with the pistol, who said, “Whose slot is that?”

    Look at these two sentences:

    He handed up the shotgun to his partner and yanked the guard’s wrists up behind his back and locked them together with a pair of handcuffs.

    He was short and heavy and moved with peculiar slowness, even torpor.

    Each one makes use of the coordinating conjunction and where it would be possible to insert a subordinate clause instead, as in:

    He handed up the shotgun to his partner and yanked the guard’s wrists up behind his back, locking them together with a pair of handcuffs.

    He was short and heavy, moving with peculiar slowness, even torpor.

    The context of our conversation was the use of verbs, and we were looking at how Wolff used the verbs in this paragraph to, among other things, pace the action and focus the reader’s attention. I wanted my students to think about how my revised versions of those sentences had a very different rhythm and emphasis, and to get them to talk about what difference that difference made. (The point is not to say that one is better or worse, or right or wrong, but to explore why Wolff made the choice he did.)

    Now, it is certainly possible to have that discussion in this instance without using technical terms like coordinating conjunction or subordinate clause, but it would be difficult to generalize that conversation, to have it carry over to other kinds of conjunctions or clauses without some kind of technical vocabulary.

    I am certainly not saying that knowing traditional grammar is a prerequisite of being a good writer. What I would argue is that anyone who is a good writer is so in part because they understand in some substantive way that a sentence, whatever its content, is always also an abstract structure that can be manipulated to different purposes and effects. Having a common grammatical vocabulary among teacher and students, in my experience anyway, makes it much easier to teach this (to the extent it can be taught).

  5. 5
    RonF says:

    It’s funny, but as I read that I said to my self “I’d have taken out all those ‘and’s and put commas in instead.” Why did he put those in?

    No, I don’t want to get into the Oxford comma debate.

  6. Ron:

    We had a whole discussion in class about the difference in rhythm those and’s made and also the difference in emphasis on each of the actions. Some of my students felt it was unnecessary to use and; others thought it heightened the effect—by slowing things down and emphasizing each action—of what it would be like to be in the bank and watch the action unfold. Then we had a whole other conversation of whether that’s really what it’s like to witness a bank robbery while you’re in the bank, or if that’s an effect the Wolff wanted to create for the sake of his readers. That was an interesting class. It was fun to watch my students debate the use of a single, usually insignificant and inconspicuous word like and, and they didn’t even realize that’s what they were doing until I pointed out to them that they’d spent nearly 20 minutes talking about it.

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